Genealogies of Revolutionary Iconoclasm, from Tupac Amaru to Central Park, Pt I

By Ananda Cohen-Aponte

Rebellions, insurgencies, uprisings, and revolutions all involve the radical uprooting of the normative social order through violent conflict. They also bring the promise of new beginnings, cultivated through the spread of liberatory ideologies. Concepts such as freedom, equality, and sovereignty have roots in the Age of Revolutions, and these terms remain central to political discourse in the present day. Then, as now, revolutionary leaders deliberately attached abstract concepts to particular material objects, a discussion well-developed in the historiographies of the French and American revolutions. The cataclysmic political movements of the eighteenth-century Atlantic world thus gained widespread support not only for the shared grievances among enslaved, indigenous, mixed-race, and creole subjects, but for the ability of their leaders to catalyze a cadre of symbols in the forging of an imaginary of liberation. Encounters with the material world served as the connective tissue that linked ideology to action. The construction of these imaginaries entails the production, circulation, and most centrally, the destruction of icons. Objects, images, and bodies took center stage in the waging of conflicts and insurgent visions.

The Tupac Amaru Rebellion (1780-1783), the largest indigenous anticolonial rebellion in Latin American history, offers an array of examples of rebels and royalists manipulating objects and works of art to realize a desired political outcome. José Gabriel Condorcanqui Tupac Amaru, an indigenous cacique from Tungasuca in Cuzco’s Canas y Canchis province, initiated his campaign with the hanging of the abusive corregidor Antonio de Arriaga in the town of Tinta on November 10, 1780, claiming to have done so under the orders of King Charles III. Tupac Amaru gained the loyal support of thousands of residents in Cuzco’s southern provinces, offering the promise of a world without the oppressive mita (rotational labor system), sales tax, and repartimiento de mercancías (forced distribution of Spanish goods to indigenous communities), all of which contributed to intensified economic disparities and a lack of faith in the colonial administration. The rebellion reached its brutal end in Cuzco in April of 1781 with the capture and gruesome execution of Tupac Amaru, Micaela Bastidas, and their close allies. Yet Tupac Amaru’s cause would be taken up by insurgents further south for another two years.  

Historians have scoured tens of thousands of pages of court proceedings and archival documentation associated with these rebellions to better understand the motivations of rebels and the factors that led them to confront the Spanish colonial enterprise with unprecedented force. Despite a robust body of scholarship on the causes and consequences of Andean insurgencies, the question remains: what did grassroots political praxis look like? How did the visual and material world intervene in the exercise of liberation and repression? The archives are rich with vignettes of the rebellion, which, when read in isolation, seem idiosyncratic or merely anecdotal. But when considered in their entirety, we can begin to reconstruct a complex repertoire of strategies enacted by both rebels and royalists to promote their vision of justice at a time of tremendous uncertainty. 

Rebels tended to wage their material assault on the very places where state-sanctioned oppression was most palpable: customs houses, the homes of rich bureaucrats, churches, and textile mills (obrajes). To take one example, rebels arrived at the plaza of Quiquijana (near Cuzco) with great pomp and circumstance, banging drums and waving flags, as they proceeded to confiscate cloth from the local textile mill and redistribute it to all of the troops prior to burning the mill to the ground. Textile mills were notorious sites of abuse; indigenous weavers, locked in a brutal system of debt peonage, worked long hours in poorly ventilated rooms. The mills also served as improvised prisons. It is no coincidence, then, that Tupac Amaru identified them as one of the first targets for destruction. Tupac Amaru’s forces ransacked and burned the mills of Quiquijana, Pomacanchi, Panapuquio in Cuzco’s southern provinces, among countless others.[1] Rebels salvaged the fruits of their undercompensated labor and redistributed them in Inca fashion, publicly performing the principles of reciprocity and good governance.[2]

In 1780, residents of the town of Cayma near the southern Andean city of Arequipa affixed pasquines (lampoons) to the door of the church that lambasted the local corregidor, cabildo, customs agents, and tax collectors, and pleaded with the Virgen de la Candelaria to intervene on their behalf.[3] These pasquinades were written in free verse, in layman’s handwriting and a vernacular style. They usually rhymed, and were riddled with puns and commentary on corruption and bad governance.[4] 

Facsimile of one of the pasquinades that circulated in Arequipa in 1780.
Left: Facsimile of one of the pasquinades that circulated in Arequipa in 1780. Source: Máximo Neira Avendaño et al., Historia general de Arequipa, 391
Source: Máximo Neira Avendaño et al., Historia general de Arequipa (Arequipa: Fundación M.J. Bustamante de la Fuente, 391). Right: “Tres pasquines aparecidos en la Paz el 19 de enero y 6 de marzo de 1780 contra el corregidor y oficiales reales, con motivo del cobro de la alcabala para la Aduana por parte del capitán de Artillería Bernardo Gallo, vista de dicha Aduana.” Archivo General de Indias, Mapas y Planos-Pasquines, 15. Reproduced in María Eugenia del Valle de Siles, Historia de la rebelión de Túpac Catari, 1781-1782 (La Paz: Editorial Don Bosco, 1990).

Other lampoons were far more menacing. In that same year, residents of La Paz posted a pasquinade depicting several individuals being hanged at the gallows. At the center is a curious scrawling of a hanged rooster, a pun on the surname of the detested general, Bernardo Gallo. Some even hovered at the interface of art and poetry—there are archival references to lampoons painted on canvases in various colors.[5] These local indictments of state authority speak to the creativity of local communities in articulating their grievances through art and parody. The conscious choice to nail them on the doors of churches and customs houses was a direct condemnation of the very physical embodiments of the institutions under critique, and assured that they would be seen by many.  

The documentation of these revolts are also rife with accounts describing rebels entering into churches and drinking chicha from the holy chalice, of profaning sacred images, and publicly burning church ornaments on the plaza.[6] During the Oruro Rebellion (1781), peasants threatened to behead the statue of the Virgen del Rosario in the town of Sillota, Bolivia, deeming her “a witch whose evil powers worked against them.”[7] These acts of iconoclasm, whether invoked as a threat or realized, did not necessarily signify a rejection of Christianity—in fact, Tupac Amaru and the majority of the rebels considered themselves Catholics. Rather, as Erina Gruner suggests, they “may have less to do with the sanctity of these objects within Catholic doctrine than with the symbolic seizure of the rights and privileges associated with them.”[8] Other examples describe more subtle acts of icon modification. For instance, witnesses described insurgents entering into churches and tying together the hands of statues of Santiago Matamoros/Mataindios in order to restrain him from acting in the service of the Spaniards as he had done during the original conquest of Peru.[9]

The confiscation of cloth from textile mills, the posting of pasquinades, and the destruction of Christian objects all constitute targeted attacks on the material embodiments of oppressive institutions. The interface of codified symbols of state power with the layman materials of revolt—cloth, chicha, paper, and paint—catalyzed political dissent at the grassroots level. These rebellions thus did not simply entail military combat between rebels and royalists. They also became a war between objects over which both parties sought to gain control. In the aftermath of the Tupac Amaru Rebellion, Royal Inspector José Antonio de Areche called for the confiscation of Inca portraits, the banning of theatrical performances, songs, and dances that exalted the Inca past, and even the Quechua language itself. While his 1781 decree was an obvious overreach that did not measure up in practice to his aspirations of a fully Hispanicized Peru, his censorship campaign did have a profound impact on the visual world of the colonial Andes.  In part two , I will discuss the most ambitious effort of state-sanctioned iconoclasm in the Andes, along with connections between the eighteenth-century battles over images and contemporary struggles.

Read part II here.

Ananda Cohen-Aponte is Assistant Professor of Art History at Cornell University. She is author of Heaven, Hell, and Everything in Between: Murals of the Colonial Andes (University of Texas Press, 2016). She is currently working on a new book project on the visual cultures of insurgency in the 18th-century Andes. You can follow her on Twitter at @drnandico. She is grateful to conversations with Allison Curseen and Rafael Aponte that inspired this post. 

Title image: Manuel Adrianzen, Tupac Amaru II, c. 2016.


[1] Di Hu, “Labor under the Sun and Son: Landscapes of Control and Resistance at Inka and Spanish Colonial Pomacocha, Ayacucho, Peru” (Ph.D Dissertation, University of California, Berkeley, 2016).

[2] Scarlett O’Phelan Godoy, La gran rebelión en los Andes: de Túpac Amaru a Túpac Catari (Lima: Petroperu, 1995), 139–85.

[3] Guillermo Galdós Rodríguez, Cronistas e historiadores de Arequipa colonial (Arequipa: Universidad Nacional San Augustín, 1993), 173–74.

[4] Guillermo Galdós Rodríguez, La rebelión de los pasquines (Arequipa: Editorial Universitaria de Arequipa, 1967); Natalia Silva Prada, “Los sueños de expulsión ó extinción de los españoles en conspiraciones, rebeliones, profecías y pasquines de la América hispánica, siglos XVI al XVIII,” Chronica Nova, no. 38 (2012): 19–57.

[5] Marie-Danielle Demélas, La invención política: Bolivia, Ecuador, Perú en el siglo XIX (Lima: IFEA, Instituto Francés de Estudios Andinos, 2003), 45.

[6] Sergio Serulnikov, Revolution in the Andes: The Age of Túpac Amaru, trans. David Frye (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013), 93–95.

[7] Sinclair Thomson, We Alone Will Rule: Native Andean Politics in the Age of Insurgency (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2002), 176–77.

[8] Erina Gruner, “Re-Envisioning Nativism: The Use of Ecclesiastical Paraphernalia During the Pueblo Revolt,” KIVA: Journal of Southwestern Anthropology and History 78, no. 3 (2013): 328.

[9] David Cahill, “El Visitador General Areche y su campaña iconoclasta contra la cultura andina,” in Visión y Símbolos: del virreinato criollo a la República Peruana, ed. Ramón Mujica Pinilla (Lima: Banco de Crédito del Perú, 2006), 110.

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